Ain’t no sunshine: the final Bites column

On good government—and a goodbye

Mayor Kevin Johnson’s “ad hoc committee on good governance” is wrapping up its work. And, would you believe it, the committee has concluded that Sacramento city governance is pretty much fine as it is.

The committee—made up of Johnson’s staunch supporters on the city council, Angelique Ashby, Jay Schenirer and Allen Warren—has met privately for nine months. It held three poorly attended public meetings—the last of them in the lobby of City Hall last Thursday. And the committee has come up with or more or less nothing to improve ethics and transparency in city government.

Schenirer told the dozen people assembled—double the turnout at previous public forums, he explained—that the ad hoc favors the idea of creating an independent election redistricting commission, but that, “We have not spent a lot of time really talking about it.” In any case, the committee recommends taking no action on redistricting until after the next election (after 2016).

Similarly, Schenirer told the group that the city’s current rules on ethics and transparency are “pretty strong” as they are. And the ad hoc committee does not favor the creation of an independent ethics commission with enforcement power—something most other large California cities have.

The discussion inevitably turned to Sacramento’s policies on city emails and public records. Schenirer and City Clerk Shirley Concolino spent time defending the city’s decision to begin destroying emails it deems “unimportant.”

This was not in any way a discussion about what sort of public-records policy citizens want to have. It was city officials telling people what the policy is going to be. No pretense of public input.

Last Friday, a superior court judge agreed to block destruction of about 15 million city emails. City Attorney James Sanchez complained that citizens are “trying to dictate” the city’s email policies. Sanchez has got it exactly backward. He doesn’t get to decide what kind of public-records policy is good enough. Neither does the city clerk. That decision belongs to the public.

Schenirer said that the ad hoc committee is willing to meet in August with outside groups like Eye on Sacramento, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, who have been pushing for a package of ethics and transparency reforms as part of a bigger “Sacramento Integrity Project.”

“We’re listening,” Schenirer told representatives of the group.

They’re not really listening. The ad hoc committee’s efforts have been half-hearted at best. By contrast, the Sacramento Integrity Project has held 10 community meetings, some very well-attended, and is moving forward with specific proposals for ethics reforms that they will ask the city council to put on the ballot for a public vote.

These include creation of an independent redistricting commission, and the creation of an independent ethics commission with guaranteed funding.

The group also proposes an overhaul of the city’s public records and transparency policies—including requirements that city employees use city email accounts for city business, and reversing the city’s policy of mass email deletions.

Since the city council has been blasé, bordering on hostile, toward ethics reform, Bites has to assume they won’t help. That means the Sacramento Integrity Project will likely have to gather signatures for the ballot, and that will take money.

But who knows? Public attention has recently been focused on the city’s arbitrary and incoherent email policy. We’ve learned that the mayor’s office does much of its business using Gmail accounts intentionally hidden from public view, and blends city business with political campaigns. That’s just one example of how the mayor uses city resources for his private business.

So maybe five council members can be convinced that it’s time for Sacramento to clean up its act, and vote to put real ethics and transparency reforms on the ballot in 2016.

Speaking of wishful thinking: This is the last Bites column.

Friends know that I have been leaving SN&R, gradually, for a long time, after more than a decade on staff, then grad school, then a stint as “contributing editor” (freelancer with a fancy title).

The last couple of years have been tremendous fun. But Mrs. Bites can’t support my journalism habit forever. It’s time to get “a job.”

Life in captivity will undoubtedly be a big adjustment. Still, how to lucky to have gotten to run this weird journalism experiment for so long. And how lucky to have had a steadfast community of regular readers, tipsters and assorted troublemakers cheering it on.

It’s hard to tell if any of it made any difference. If anything, local politics seem sleazier than ever. But if Bites wasn’t terribly influential, it was at least different, and I think readers usually got their money’s worth.

The SN&R editors say I’m welcome to write whenever. I hope to. And I’ve got some other projects in mind. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, somebody keep an eye on that mayor of yours. Something sketchy there.